(TNS) -- Portland will host a bevy of federal, state and local policymakers Monday as they discuss the importance of high-speed Internet access in driving economic growth.
The setting for the conversations will be Digital New England, a regional summit organized by Next Century Cities, a national nonprofit helping municipalities pursue expanded broadband access, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.
More than 250 people are expected to attend the summit, including U.S. Sen. Angus King, various other lawmakers, company executives and at least one member of President Barack Obama’s staff. The event will offer a venue to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing states and local municipalities that want to expand high-speed Internet service. The event will also include a discussion of the recent findings of the Broadband Opportunity Council, a group the White House convened to examine how federal policy can better support community broadband.
“The Digital New England Summit will highlight how communities across the northeast are working to bring their residents next generation broadband access,” said Debra Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities. “With Senator Angus King helping to lead the charge for bringing critical broadband infrastructure and the exciting efforts taking place here, holding the regional summit in Maine was a logical choice.”
Rockport and South Portland were both inaugural members of Next Century Cities when it was founded in 2014. Both of those municipalities announced their own municipal broadband projects in 2014. Since last year, Islesboro, Scarborough and Sanford have also joined the organization, which now counts 118 member cities.
Maine is considered to have relatively low Internet speeds when compared to the rest of the nation. Last year, Maine found itself ranked 49th out of 50 for broadband speeds on one list.
Roughly 80 percent of Maine households are now considered to be “unserved” by high-speed Internet service, according to the ConnectME Authority. That percent is based on a new standard the authority adopted in January that considers an area “unserved” if residents don’t have access to download and upload speeds of at least 10 megabits-per-second.
Fletcher Kittredge, CEO of Biddeford-based Great Works Internet and a speaker at Monday’s summit, said momentum has been gaining in Augusta to address the dire lack of adequate broadband access throughout the state. He cited two bills that became law during the Legislature’s last session – one that provides funding for municipal broadband planning grants and another that created a Municipal Broadband Access Fund to help fund the buildout of broadband infrastructure. That fund only has an initial capital infusion of $500, but Kittredge is confident lawmakers will increase its funding during future sessions.
“With Rockport, Islesboro and South Portland already surging ahead with their own municipal broadband systems, other municipalities are just beginning to research the issue,” Kittredge said. “Right now there’s a significant learning curve happening in many town halls; the silver lining is that when more robust funding comes later, everyone’s education process will be far more advanced.”
He continued: “Progress is coming relatively fast. After about a decade of relative inactivity in the policy realm, I think 2015 has been the year in which several key sparks have finally lit the fire, and public officials now recognize the vital link between Internet infrastructure and economic development.”
Digital New England runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will be held at the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland. The full agenda summit can be found on the Next Century Cities website.
On Monday morning, Sen. King will participate in a keynote conversation about the importance of broadband to drive economic growth with David Edelman, President Barack Obama’s special assistant for economic and technology policy. Moderating the conversation will be Susan Crawford, a former Obama staffer who is now a law professor at Harvard’s Berkman Center of Internet and Society.
©2015 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.